Copyright 1991 Times Newspapers Limited
November 19, 1991
HEADLINE: Israel believes all captives could be released this year
BYLINE: From Richard Beeston in Jerusalem and Christopher Walker in Amman
Middle East - ISRAEL said last night that the release of Terry Waite and Thomas Sutherland could herald the return of a captured Israeli airman shot down over Lebanon, and ultimately bring the entire hostage saga, involving Western captives, missing Israeli servicemen and Lebanese prisoners, to a close by the end of the year.
Although officials were at pains to emphasise that Israel was not directly involved in yesterday's releases, they predicted that the move by the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad group could renew momentum in the process. There are six Israeli servicemen who are listed as missing in Lebanon, although Israeli military authorities are only hopeful that one man, an air force navigator, Captain Ron Arad, is still alive.
Earlier this year, as part of the hostage negotiation efforts by the United Nations, Israel received the body of one missing soldier, Sergeant Samir Assad, as well as positive information that two others, riflemen Yossi Fink and Rachamim al-Sheikh, were dead. The remaining three men, Sergeant Zachary Baumel, Corporal Yehuda Katz, and Sergeant Zvi Feldman, have been missing since 1982 with no firm information on their fate.
''We hope the next stage will be Ron Arad, that is our main goal together with the return of the remains of two soldiers and details about three others who went missing nine years ago,'' said Yohanan Bein, the deputy foreign ministry director-general who is responsible for liaising on hostages.
However, it seems unlikely that any final settlement will be completed until the Iranian-backed group, Hezbollah, which is said to be holding Captain Arad and the two bodies, receives guarantees on the return of its captured Shia cleric, Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, kidnapped by an Israeli commando unit in 1989.
Yesterday's releases came in spite, rather than because, of last month's new Middle East peace process in Madrid. Iran and its client kidnapping groups in Lebanon are among the most bitter opponents of peace talks between Arab nations, the Palestinians and the Israelis, which they have threatened to sabotage. The Iranians have sentenced to death all the participants in the process and recently hosted a rejectionist conference against it.
Shortly before the hostages were set free yesterday, a pro-Iranian Lebanese leader said that Iran's decision to end the hostage saga was now irreversible and would not be affected by Tehran's opposition to the Middle East peace talks. In Western circles, the willingness of Iran to sanction a continuation of releases was seen as a sign of the near-desperation of its pragmatic leadership to improve ties with the West and gain the economic advantages this would bring.
There had been fears that talks between Israel and its main Arab neighbours could derail the UN-sponsored hostage plan. The dangers were illustrated when a car bomb exploded at the American University in Beirut, apparently planted in protest against the Madrid talks.
One Western security expert said: ''Waite was considered by the kidnappers and, more importantly, by Iran, to be the biggest bargaining chip of all. Now that he is free, ther is real hope that the process will move along more swiftly.'' Last night Arab diplomatic sources said it appeared that certain guarantees on the key issue of the safety of the kidnappers had been transmitted via the UN mediators.
Last week's determination by the United States and Britain to accuse Libya over the Lockerbie bombing and not Syria and Iran was seen as another factor helping to determine the timing of Mr Waite's release.
Also seen as central by British diplomats in the Middle East was the Foreign Office's intervention to prevent a public vigil in London marking 1,000 days since the death sentence was imposed on Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses. His earlier public appearance, to collect a book prize, was blamed, in Whitehall, for delaying the release of Jack Mann, the last but one British hostage to be freed.